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Review: Book celebrates 50 years of ‘Mockingbird’

Associated Press | 6/15/2010, 11:56 a.m.

A heartfelt appreciation of a novel loved by millions over generations, “Scout, Atticus and Boo” is a collection of interviews that Mary McDonagh Murphy conducted for a documentary film about the best-selling book “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its famous author, Harper Lee.

Lee has refused to be interviewed since the burst of celebrity she enjoyed in the 1960s when her novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a classic movie, with Gregory Peck portraying the book’s Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s small-town South.

Lee would not be interviewed for this book, either, not even when wooed by Oprah Winfrey over a meal at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.

Murphy, instead, opts to interview a few celebrities of her own (Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, Winfrey), a dozen or so writers, (Rick Bragg, Anna Quindlen, Scott Turow), along with friends and associates of Lee, 84, who lives in Monroeville, Ala. All give their take on the book and its impact, the author and her life.

This book is for Lee’s most devoted fans. Perhaps they alone could enjoy its irritatingly repetitive structure - time and again interviewees ruminate over why Lee never published a second book, why she chose to avoid the public spotlight and her relationship with childhood friend Truman Capote.

In between there is genuinely thought-provoking commentary, such as James McBride’s view that the book, hailed for its young heroine Scout’s resistance to racial injustice, falls short in its treatment of its black characters.

McBride, author of “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” says Lee is “an American treasure” who took an admirable stand, but he disagrees sharply with those who call her “a very brave writer because she wrote about those subjects.”

Novelist Mark Childress (“Crazy in Alabama”) was born in Monroeville, and he believes Lee’s novel was “a radical book at that time in the South.”

“It gives white Southerners a way to understand the racism that they’ve been brought up with and to find another way,” he says.

As for those much-chewed-over questions - why no second book? why the years of silence? - Lee’s sister, Alice Finch Lee, and Winfrey provide succinct answers that they say came from Lee’s own mouth. Neither answer is a surprise - she couldn’t top “Mockingbird” and she’s a private person like the novel’s Boo Radley - but they give the book a telling, first-hand dimension that it often lacks from one admiring interview subject to the next.

Associated Press